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The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

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COLUMN: The Good, Bad and Ugly of 2023 football season

Eastern+Football+Team+runs+out+of+their+tunnel+against+UT+Martin+at+O%E2%80%98Brien+Field+Saturday+afternoon.
Tyriq Johnson
Eastern Football Team runs out of their tunnel against UT Martin at O‘Brien Field Saturday afternoon.

Lets face it: Eastern surprised a lot of people with one of the best turnarounds of the season in the Football Subdivision Championship.

With an 8-3 overall record, this has been the best record since quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attended Eastern and led the team to an OVC championship in 2013.

Redshirt freshman running back MJ Flowers (20) rushed more yards than the opposing offense three times this season. (File)

Head Coach Chris Wilkerson won the Coach of the Year award in the Big South-Ohio Valley Conference, redshirt freshman MJ Flowers won offensive freshman of the year in the conference, and 10 different Panthers were selected on all-conference teams: six for first team all-conference (Flowers, junior wide receiver Eli Mirza, senior offensive lineman Chad Strickland, redshirt sophomore safety Blake Ruffin, fifth-year defensive back Russell Dandy and junior linebacker Elijawah Tolbert) and four for second team all-conference (redshirt junior quarterback Pierce Holley, graduate wide receiver Justin Thomas, redshirt junior offensive lineman Sebastian Pares and redshirt junior defensive lineman Joel Barrows).

Obviously, every team has its ups and downs throughout the season, so here are some of the good, bad and ugly moments of the 2023 football season for the Panthers:

Good:

  • Week one shoutout against Indiana State

This game set a statement about how this team had multiple new faces, specifically a new starting quarterback.

This was Holley’s first game as a Panther, and he performed well during the shutout. Holley was 19 of 30 for 244 yards as he recorded two passing touchdowns and one interception in his Panthers debut.

This game also set a statement about the Panthers’ defense as Eastern forced four turnovers. The defense also scored two touchdowns, one from junior cornerback Tyris Harvey and one from sophomore safety NiJhay Burt after the two recorded one interception each.

I don’t think anyone was expecting the Panthers to win, let alone shutout the Sycamores based off of how the team did last season, but this team set off a warning shot to their other opponents this season.

  • Week three win against Illinois State
Eastern defeated the Illinois State University Redbirds 14-13 for the first home game of the season at O’Brien Field. (File)

Coming after a loss against Bowling Green, Eastern won the 111th Mid-American Classic matchup between Illinois State at their first home game of the season. The Panthers beat the Redhawks 14-13.

Going back to the newer players, a Panther that performed well in this game was wide receiver Justin Thomas.

The sixth-year graduate student from Wixom, Michigan recorded the two touchdowns for the Panthers. Before transferring to Eastern in 2022, Thomas was a Division III All-American wide receiver from Albion College. Thomas played in four games in 2022, but he tore his hip labrum and had to miss the remainder of the season. This was Thomas’ first game back from his injury.

After the win over Illinois State, Thomas said that game was the “flip the script game,” and the Panthers won their next two games after their home opener.

Bad:

  • Week seven loss against SEMO

Following an overtime loss against UT Martin, the Panthers lost their second straight game against SEMO 35-28 in Cape Girardeau, MO.

The loss against SEMO in the seventh week of the season was when I started to see comments from people giving up on Panther football.

The Panthers didn’t do bad in this game as it was more the fact the Redhawks had a better game overall.

I think the biggest factor of this loss was the lack of third down conversions that were successful for the Panthers. Eastern was five of 17 for third down conversions while SEMO was seven of 13.

Even though this was a bad game, the players were optimistic heading into practice for their game against Bryant.

“It was a good learning experience for us to move on and really execute our assignments,” Mirza said the Wednesday after the SEMO game.

“We’re still feeling good,” defensive lineman Tre’Jon Lewis said the Wednesday after the loss. “We still got a lot to accomplish this season, and the season’s not over. We still have a great opportunity to win out and end 8-3.”

Little did Lewis know five weeks before the team’s last game of the season, that is exactly what happened.

  • Third down conversion rates

I think this was a key factor the Panthers struggled with throughout the season. Third down conversions can become crucial in tight games and situations.

Here are the third down conversion records that Eastern had in their eleven games:

  • Week 1 at Indiana State: 5 of 12
  • Week 2 at Bowling Green: 1 of 10
  • Week 3 vs Illinois State: 8 of 17
  • Week 4 vs McNeese: 8 of 16
  • Week 5 at Northwestern State: 5 of 16
  • Week 6 vs University of Tennessee Martin: 7 of 18
  • Week 7 as Southeast Missouri: 5 of 17
  • Week 8 vs Bryant: 8 of 13
  • Week 9 at Lindenwood: 3 of 13
  • Week 10 vs Tennessee State: 3 of 15
  • Week 11 at Robert Morris: 8 of 14

The Panthers recorded a percentage of less than 50% for their third down conversions for nine of the 11 games within the season.

This was probably the worst aspect of their season, but the team continued to stay optimistic throughout the season and continued to improve.

Ugly:

  • Week six loss against UT Martin
Eastern lost to University of Tennessee Martin 28-27 during homecoming weekend. (File)

This game was a battle between two talented teams.

Before this game, both teams recorded only one loss: Eastern’s against Bowling Green and UT Martin’s against Georgia.

Although the Panthers lost this game, it was how they lost that made it ugly.

I think being literal fingertips away from a win against a ranked opponent would be considered a heartbreaking loss.

I like the ambition of going for the win with a two-point conversion rather than settling with a kick to force double overtime.

If Eastern beat UT Martin, I believe the season would’ve been very different, and I think the Panthers would’ve had a better chance to make FCS playoffs.

  • First four out in FCS Playoffs

This can be heavily debated that the Panthers got screwed out of the playoffs.

Teams that ended with a 7-4 record got in over Eastern, and most of that has to go into the fact that some of these schools faced tougher opponents.

In my opinion, I think we deserved a spot in the playoffs over some of these other teams that were selected.

The committee did not pick a school that did not have the chance to play any of the top five teams in the FCS yet had one of the best turnaround seasons in the FCS and was ranked 24th by the FCS Coaches Poll.

Could’ve Been Ugly but Wasn’t:

  • Déjà vu against Bryant
Eastern defeated Bryant University after a successful two-point conversion made by redshirt junior quarterback Pierce Holley. (File)

This could’ve been the biggest déjà vu fans have ever experienced.

The Panthers were literal fingertips away from getting a win over UT Martin, and the Panthers found themselves in a similar situation against Bryant.

Eastern won the coin flip and chose to play defense first before overtime…just like the UT Martin game.

The opposing team scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point…just like the UT Martin game.

Eastern scored a touchdown…just like the UT Martin game.

Wilkerson and the team decide to go for the two-point conversion to win the game…just like the UT Martin game.

Holley runs the ball in for the two-point conversion…NOT like the UT Martin game.

The similarities were all there until the last play, and the déjà vu was strong until the referees said the two-point conversion by Holley was successful.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Fake punt against Bowling Green by Jacob Horvath

This play is in my top five list of my favorite plays this season.

Faking the punt and successfully obtaining a first down is rare in college football which makes these plays more special.

In their week two game against Bowling Green, with 3:15 left in the second quarter, the Panthers were faced with an 11-yard disadvantage on fourth down.

Eastern lined up for a punt, and Horvath, the freshman punter from Bentleigh, Australia faked the punt and rushed for 23 yards to successfully secure a first down.

This play led to a touchdown by junior wide receiver DeAirious Smith for the second touchdown of the day for the Panthers.

  • 56-yard game-winning field goal against McNeese

With 20 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Eastern was tied with McNeese 28-28.

Senior kicker Stone Galloway ran on the field for his first seconds of playing time this season. Right before the Panthers’ season opener, Galloway suffered a groin injury that sidelined him up until this moment.

Without any practice ahead of the game, Galloway ran onto the field and sank a 56-yard field goal to give the Panthers the 31-28 comeback win over the McNeese Cowboys.

“I never had doubt in Stone,” Smith said after the game.

Galloway’s field goal is the second longest in program history, and it was the eighth made field goal in school history that was over 50 yards.

  • Flowers rushing more than opposing offenses

Flowers was one of many key factors that contributed to the team this season.

Flowers has rushed for more yards than not one, not two but three opposing team’s offenses. That by itself is a statistic that always catches my eye.

Here are the three teams Flowers rushed for more yards than in the 2023 season:

  1. Week 4 vs McNeese

McNeese: 271 yards

Flowers: 272 yards

  1. Week 10 vs TSU

TSU: 106 yards

Flowers: 201 yards

  1. Week 11 at Robert Morris

Flowers: 179 yards

Robert Morris: 57 yards

  • Dandy makes history
Russell Dandy, a fifth year defensive back, currently leads the school program with 18 pass breakups in a single season. (File)

The fifth-year cornerback from Hinesville, GA, led the FCS in pass breakups with 18 and one interception. Dandy averaged 1.7 passes defended a game.

Along with leading the FCS in pass breakups in the 2023 season, Dandy broke the school record for pass breakups in a single season, edging out former Panther Ben Brown and his 16 pass breakups in the 2004 season.

Overall, the Panthers had a dominant season as this was one of the biggest turnarounds in the FCS this year. Wilkerson led this team to eight wins compared to the two they had last year.

This was Wilkerson’s second year in the head coaching position, and with the success the team has had this season, it looks like Wilkerson and the Panthers will continue to improve and develop throughout the offseason for another shot at playoffs in the 2023 season.

Zaria Flippin can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].

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About the Contributors
Zaria Flippin, Sports Editor
Zaria Flippin is a junior sports media relations major. This is her first year at The News.
Ashanti Thomas, Photographer
Ashanti Thomas is a senior digital media major. She previously served as photo editor and assistant photo editor at The News.

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